There was a time Brian Vickers was left for dead. I’m not just talking NASCAR here, I’m talking life.
It was the summer of 2010, and a healthy 26-year-old male had gone from a ride he handpicked at Team Red Bull to a hospital in critical condition. Diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, a series of blood clots threatened to tear it all to shreds. Vickers had been through some harrowing moments before, losing best friend Ricky Hendrick to a plane crash at age 21. But when you’re faced with this kind of test, one where a bad outcome could lead to no second chances, it’s the kind of moment that changes one’s outlook on life.
“You wake up one morning and you're just not sure,” he said in Victory Lane Sunday. “You're just hoping to be around the next, to are you ever going to race again?”
He would. The recovery happened, but the comeback … that was several years in the making. Returning to Red Bull Racing after months of rehab, his results were never the same and by the tail end of 2011, he was unemployed; damaged goods in a world where just one knock on your talent was enough to take you down forever. It actually was a stroke of luck that earned him a chance at Michael Waltrip Racing. That February, Elliott Sadler was contracted to drive the No. 55 car but Chevrolet stepped in and kept the deal from getting done. A conflict of interest gave Vickers a second, and likely final, chance after a decade racing in the sport.
Ever since that moment, where he was allowed to strap inside that Toyota, he’s made the most of it – no looking back. In a sport in need of “feel good” stories, there was a reason everyone lined up to shake Vickers’ hand after Sunday’s triumph. It wasn’t so much a win on the racetrack as a victory in the great game we called life, a long time coming for one of the sport’s good guys who truly earned it.
What other long-term rewards might come next? Let’s go “Through the Gears” before this off weekend to discover what else popped up during a weekend of racing in New Hampshire …
FIRST GEAR: Brian Vickers earned himself a ride.Some might call it track position warfare, a fuel strategy call that put Vickers towards the front at the right time. Since stepping behind the wheel at MWR, he’s actually had more dominant cars at Bristol and Martinsville the past two years. But the bottom line is when the checkered flag flew, the No. 55 car finished first and that counts on the stat sheet. If anyone has any sense at Aaron’s, they’ll be signing on the dotted line to give this guy a full 2014 season to run for the Cup championship.
“When your back is against the wall and everything is down and things are not looking so good,” Vickers explained, crediting this team for believing in his ability, “You find out quickly who is willing to vouch for you. I learned a lot through that experience personally and I grew a lot as a person.”
That paid off on-track too, with newfound patience that allowed him to conserve equipment, then expertly run down and pass heavyweights Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch down the stretch. The question now is whether he’ll be allowed to fight again over the long-term. Crew chief Rodney Childers, whom Vickers has known for two decades, is being highly courted by rival Stewart-Haas Racing to chief the and No. 4 car and Kevin Harvick for a 2014 campaign. Sponsor Aaron’s is under new ownership, rethinking their presence in the sport during a time when the financial bottom lines for so many companies no longer involve NASCAR. Challenges still remain here for a team that, for all intents and purposes, could come out of the box a title contender next season. When you earn top-5 finishes with each man you put in the car: Michael Waltrip, Mark Martin and Vickers, and in the process, put the team in contention for the season-long owners’ championship I’d say that’s a Herculean effort.
The question now is, after the perfect pass on Stewart and then defense of his track position late, whether New Hampshire’s 11th winner in 11 races did enough to convince the powers that be. Common sense would have you saying yes; but then again, isn’t Dale Earnhardt Jr. still waiting on a primary sponsor? How this business side unfolds tells you a lot about where NASCAR stands in the 2013 economy.
SECOND GEAR: Busch’s bad breaks are adding up.You know Kurt Busch’s maturity has reached a new stage when it’s his younger brother getting mad for him after a wreck. That’s exactly what happened on Sunday afternoon once Kurt’s promising day got wiped out in a three-car incident on Lap 226.
Stuck in traffic through a pit shuffle after leading 102 circuits, Kurt’s No. 78 Chevy was simply trying to work its way back through traffic. But while battling side-by-side with Ryan Newman for position the cars lost momentum, Matt Kenseth’s front bumper came into play and the rest is history. While I chalked it up as “one of those racing deals,” younger Kyle didn’t see it that way – pointing the finger squarely at an overaggressive Newman for causing the contact.
"Man, just stupidity,” Kyle Busch said bluntly. “I mean, Ryan Newman is the biggest stupid idiot out here. And he's a big ogre and he can do whatever he wants because he can probably kick anybody's butt, so no sense in getting into a fight with him."
That confrontation is one Kurt still would have gone after in recent years … but not Sunday. Instead, he took a moment to cool down, then spoke to reporters calmly while the crew put the Furniture Row car back together again. Their hard work, resulting in a 31st-place result, earned the team 5-7 more points that could come in handy down the stretch.
It’s possible Newman’s future relationship with Kurt – he could be headed towards ally Richard Childress Racing next season – kept paybacks and soundbites to a minimum. Or perhaps Busch is more focused on keeping up his own momentum, following the fifth or sixth time this season a possible win slipped away. Like a cat with nine lives, he’s given up well over 100 points through wrecks, mechanical failures and self-induced pit road mistakes. You can only withstand so much adversity before the team itself starts losing confidence. A strong bounceback after the off week is critical to keep the elder Busch in contention.
As for Kyle? He better hope the No. 39 driver, if there’s nothing to lose at Richmond, doesn’t approach the rear bumper of the No. 18. Little Busch is right about one thing: this is one guy who doesn’t back down from a battle.
THIRD GEAR: Big-time performances when needed.Vickers wasn’t the only driver who came out of nowhere at Loudon. Jeff Burton, whose last appearance up front seemed like it was back in the 20th century, was the fastest car in the field as laps wound down. With the right track position and a few more laps, the No. 31 car could have just as easily won the race. It’s been a quiet, steady improvement over in the Caterpillar camp, running outside the top 20 just once since Memorial Day Weekend – and that was courtesy of a Tony Stewart bump in Sonoma.
“I don't think everybody understands this,” Burton explained. “This is Luke (Lambert’)s first year as a Cup crew chief; this is one of my engineer's second year as a Cup crew chief; the other engineer, it's his first year as a Cup crew engineer. It's our first time all working together. We are starting to learn each other.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time. Now just 25 points outside a Chase position with seven races left, Burton has strong tracks like Bristol and Richmond dead ahead. With all of RCR on the upswing, including Kevin Harvick’s run of consistency, it’s not inconceivable this veteran could make a run.
It’s one that Brad Keselowski is already doing, after a Friday pole position turned into a fourth-place performance on Sunday, his best since Bristol in March. After a week outside the top 10 in points, he’s back up to ninth and can head into the off week breathing easy. Indy lies up ahead, the site of owner Roger Penske’s greatest achievements and a place where they feel both he and Joey Logano will be contenders. No one battling for those final few spots in the Chase needed this type of weekend more.
FOURTH GEAR: Passing came at a premium. Kyle Busch was a quote machine Sunday, explaining succinctly why so much of New Hampshire turned ‘round into a single-file parade.
“Even Superman didn't pass today,” he said. “Or even if he did, he didn't make it up to the lead. Once you get within five car lengths of the wake of the car in front of you, you can't do anything anymore.”
What Busch refers to is the dreaded “aero push,” a tight condition that’s even made its way to one-mile tracks like New Hampshire. It’s the worst nightmare for NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis, a vehicle that looks much flashier but whose handling all too often had fallen flat like its CoT predecessor.
How do you fix it? That answer’s unclear. But NASCAR seems to be suffering from a case of too much parity. When all the cars run the same speed, combined with tires that don’t fall off and air that makes handling even more irritable, what you get is a case of 43 drivers forced to effectively run in place. The off week is a time of reflection, as NASCAR makes several changes in its Research and Development field (several of which were announced Monday afternoon). The real challenge for however it all shakes out is to find a way to break these cars up, causing aggression and greater passing without opening the gap even further between rich and poor.
That’s not an easy fix.
Jimmie Johnson had a brilliant drive Sunday, jumping from 43rd to sixth after being forced to start at the rear for failing post-qualifying inspection. Some say that’s penalty enough — but how many points were really taken away, in the end? You wonder if even those types of failings, even if discovered on Friday, should get a six-point deduction attached. … Call it a mistake, bad driving or Lady Luck shining in the wrong direction. But there’s no question Danica Patrick wrecked her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., on Sunday. With the off week ahead, leaving lots of time to stew (and talk) it’s undoubtedly a major test for them – whether you want it to be news or not. … The struggles with passing caused an uncharacteristic number of cautions at New Hampshire. The 12 yellows, most for pushing and shoving incidents on track, were the most in nine years.